Saturday, September 17, 2011

No Wit/Help Like a Woman's

This play, given the high usage of quotes from the 1611 almanac, was probably written in 1611. However, it wasn't entered into the Stationer's Register until 1653 or published until 1657. And, after a revival in Dublin in 1638, it wasn't played again until 1985 by the Wayward Players.

This is all probably because it sucks.

Middleton borrowed the plot from Della Porta's play "La Sorella" (The Sister), and the plot was subsequently borrowed several times from Middleton in the late 17th and 18th century (once by Aphra Behn). The plot itself could be "cute," I guess. But the comic resolutions are too perfect, and the characters seem so sharp and mannered that it feels like a Restoration play; disguises, babies switched at birth, hints of incest and homosexuality--it could be so good, but it's not. This play is full of stereotypes enacting a situation instead of personalities engaged in life.

It does focus on women, as evident in the title. The titular "Wit" and "Help" come from the two main characters, Mistress Low-water and Lady Goldenfleece, both of whom end up entangled together in complicated financial and sexual/romantic affairs. The idea of doubleness, too, holds the play together; almost every character has his or her counterpart: Jane and Grace, Philip and Sandfield, the Twilights and the Sunsets, Weatherwise and Sir Gilbert Lambstone, etc. This doubleness creates a plot in which one person may stand in for another and thus resolve what seem like impending tragedies--incest committed, love denied, homosexual desire. But the final solution is financial, not sexual. Everyone goes home with the right bed-partner and enough money in their pockets.

The Order of Persons, Part II and III

In the last half of Taylor's essay, "The Order of Persons," he discusses lists of fictional people, "identification tables." These are the lists of the persons in the play, the dramatis personae, at the beginning of the play when we read it today.

Plays were not always published with these, though, because plays were not always published to be read by an individual for pleasure. The first early modern plays were published with woodcuts as part of the paratext; these woodcuts, images of generic persona represented in the play such as in Everyman, performed some of the function of later lists.

However, after 1562, most plays were published sans woodcuts, with identification tables which may have evolved as a cheaper alternative to woodcuts. Taylor proposes that these plays were published more for amateur performance purposes than for a silent reader; households might have bought plays and performed them for entertainment after supper; touring troupes might have bought them to perform in various towns.

After the Vagabond Act outlawed unlicensed players and the theater became professionalized, such plays did not need identification tables. So when they began to spring up again, it was for a different reason--to add literary legitimacy to the play. Playwrights such as Ben Jonson added them, Taylor thinks, because classic Latin and Greek plays all had identification tables in the early-modern humanist editions.

From 1611 on, though, it seems that identification tables become steadily more common, quadrupling in the next century, indicating a shift in the consumers of plays. Plays are now commodities for readers, not just for actors, and an identification table is part of the paratext that helps a reader along. In fact, Taylor makes an interesting point that identification tables are the paratextual piece most likely to interpose itself in the act of reading.

Of the plays published during Middleton's lifetime, six have identification tables included in the paratext. We do not know that he wrote them or was involved in their printing, but this can be measured by other signs of involvement: signed epistles dedicatory, introductory letters, or prefatory poems. After examining the evidence, Taylor concludes that Middleton was almost certainly involved in the Masque of Heroes identification table.

Taylor lists a few things that we can learn from such lists, indicating a way in which lists show bias rather than objectivity. Lists represent hierarchies and expose values; in identification tables, men often come before women, higher class characters before lower class characters. In The Roaring Girl, characters are listed by households.

Grouping by gender caught on slowly but gained popularity by 1679. As Taylor says, “Absence of gender as organizing principle in those [earlier] lists results, primarily, from the almost complete absence of women." By 1660 women were no longer invisible or excluded but their presence was "characterized."

An interesting, but probably unanswerable, question Taylor asks is, if a play "represents" persons who exist outside the play, where do they exist?

Finally, Taylor concludes that today's editors cannot help but mediate the text as they present it for publication, paratexts included. We either stray away from choices that the original author/publisher made, by organizing identification tables alphabetically or in order of appearance, or we value the primacy of the original by keeping the "original" (sometimes dubiously so) table with all its hierarchical values intact.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Order of Persons, Part 1

In the introductory essay to Thomas Middleton and Early Modern Textual Culture, Gary Taylor explores several different kinds of lists of persons related to or authored by Thomas Middleton, locating the reader in  the early modern textual "situation" as it were during Middleton's lifetime and early modern readership. The Preface lets us know that any definition of "early modern," of "English," of "textual culture," or even of text is always going to represent, at best, a fraction of the reality, the place where something exists "on a continuum between . . . nothing and everything," i.e. between no knowledge and all knowledge. As Taylor tells us, all knowledge about early modern textual culture is impossible, so instead of trying to encompass it all, we enclose and define and seek for "thin description" and "deep focus."

Taylor sees lists of people as indicative of relations between people and nations (citizenship, birthplace), institutions (companies, traditions (church rituals such as baptism and burial), social class (a gentleman or a "base fellow"?), financial obligations (lists of debtors), and other people (geneologies). The first part of his essay is about lists of actual people which include Thomas Middleton's name. Through an analysis of these lists, Taylor deduces that early modern identity was categorized by geography, credit, occupation, geneology, and value. He also says that, while these lists overlap and "mix," they are also partial/fractional and always in motion. They allow us to map the distances between persons but these distances are always relative and the lists themselves are often arbitrary in what they consider important.

Important points:

Texts created geography--a sense of national identity. The texts themselves were also changing as standards of English began to form, become normative, and struggle against each other.

An economy of credit is dependent on names--you must know the name of the person indebted to you to collect on the debt. However, the economy of the theater was not dependent on the names of the playwrights, which were often left off playbills in favor of the name of the theater or company or printer.

Being part of a company (of Drapers, of Stationers, etc.) could help one in London. There was no livery company for poets; however, they held themselves to a code of ethics similar to a livery company by collaborating with each other, by attempting to distinguish, as Jonson did, between poets and those playing-at-poetry (poetasters).

The genealogical mode (seeking for a lineage) and the philological mode (seeking for an origin) are opposed to each other. However, much scholarship (in the Renaissance and now) which seeks for origins is still indebted to genealogical methods of textual transmission.

The rejection of genealogy as a source of textual authority led to a rejection of genealogy as a source of political authority--and thus, to the Revolution.

On to Part II!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Michaelmas Term

This play, by Thomas Middleton, was originally performed by the boy's company, the Children of Paul's, who did not have their own theater but acted either at court or at the St. Paul's Cathedral where they trained as choristers. The action is confined to the term of Michaelmas, one of the four times during the year when the inns of court (law offices, essentially?) are in session. And while there is only one lawyer in the play and he has little stage time, the play winkingly alludes to the corruption and selfishness of the law and of lawyers. Probably the young men of the Inns of Court were a large part of the audience of this show.

It is a play about financial cunning and street smarts. Quomodo, a draper, hears of a Master Easy, a young landed man who has come to London after the death of his father. Quomodo decides to fleece him and does it by having his servant (his "spirit") Shortyard pose as a wealthy young man (Blastlight) who ingratiates himself with Easy, who is very easily taken in. Easy begins to spend money wildly, spurred on by Blastlight, and soon needs a loan of money. Blastlight takes him to Quomodo, who cannot give them the money but who gives them some valuable cloth to sell, at which point both men sign that they will return the value of the cloth within a month. However, Quomodo arranges it so that they cannot sell the cloth to anyone but him, who buys it back at a much reduced rate. When the debt comes due, Blastlight is no where to be found and Quomodo holds Easy responsible for the debt. All his lands come into Quomodo's hands; however, after this win, Quomodo does a strange thing; he pretends to be dead to see what his family will do with the wealth. His son disowns him, his wife marries Easy, and all the lands go back to Easy. Quomodo, in disguise as a beadle, actually signs a paper to that effect before he realizes that his wife and Easy are married and that he has cheated himself.

At the same time, two young gallants, Lethe and Rearage, are competing over the hand of Quomodo's daughter, Susan. Lethe is a really dissolute character, who has left his Scottish mother in poverty, who has brought a Country Wench into London to be his mistress, and who offers his sexual favors to Quomodo's wife in order for her to favor the match with Susan. Of course he is foiled, made to marry the Country Wench, and Rearage and Susan are married, much to Quomodo's displeasure.

Quomodo is such a weird character in this play; he acts sort of like Shylock in some ways, and sort of like Volpone in others. However, he doesn't have any of the helplessness and pathos of Shylock or the likeability of Volpone. He is crafty and boasts of his craftiness; Leinwand, who introduces the play, suggest that perhaps the young lawyers in the audience are supposed to relate to his character. Maybe this is true, but the lawyers would have to have a dark vision of themselves to relate to Quomodos' thieving, lying, and unexplained hatred for Rearage.

The homoeroticism in the play is really fun; Easy and Shortyard become best friends for a while, sharing a bed and everything else. The fact that both would have been played by young boys, for an audience of young men, is somewhat suggestive. Neither show much interest in women; Easy marries Quomodo's wife, but I get the sense that he does it mostly for the money.

Ultimately, Lienwand asks if perhaps the characters are just "animated ideologies" rather than round characters; sort of walking stereotypes that Middleton puts on stage to show how "London thoroughly socializes character, pre-empting any chance of individuality." This is not my favorite Middleton play, but it is interesting how much he associates corruption with the law. This focus, and his allegorically named city characters, remind me a lot of Dickens. Middleton has a similar urge to expose corruption, but lacks the sentimentality of Dickens; his exposure is less to create a social change (ala Hard Times) and more to cause cynical laughter.

The Popularity of Playbooks Revisited

This article, by Alan B. Farmer and Zachary Lesser, refutes a claim made by Peter W. M. Blayney in "The Publication of Playbooks" that playbooks, as a commodity, were not profitable for publishers nor enticing for readers. Blayney had been reacting against a long-held view that versions of popular plays sold well in early modern England and that the reason we don't see more records of sales and readership is that they were mostly "pirated." Blayney, says the authors, made an important claim when it comes to the piracy of the plays; however, his statement that the playbooks themselves didn't sell well and weren't largely produced is what is at stake in the Farmer and Lesser article. They claim that Blayney only looked at the numbers of playbooks sold from year to year, rather than comparing these numbers with numbers of other kinds of popular reading material, such as ballads and sermons. For their article, they look at the numbers of original plays and the numbers of reprints of older plays published per year, looking at expansions and contractions in the market from the year 1576-1660, the market share of professional plays among all speculative (non-monopolistic) books, and specifically how playbooks performed against sermons in first-time and repeat publication. In all ways, playbooks performed much better than Blayney has said; in fact, they seem to have been very popular.

An interesting paradox crops up, though--the Caroline paradox, in which reprinted versions of plays first published from 1629-1640 drop sharply, although first editions still perform well and reprints of plays from before 1629 perform well. Farmer and Lesser posit that a canon of "classic" plays was being established during this period, and these plays continued to reprint well. In addition, people still wanted versions of the new plays as they came out. However, the new plays did not become "classics" the way the earlier Elizabethan and Jacobean plays had. While the Caroline canon looks different from our own, it has helped shape our own, which favors Elizabethan and Jacobean drama over Caroline.

Literary Cultures and the Material Book

Okay, so after a two-month hiatus (during which I was studying Shakespearean original practices in Staunton, VA, moving to a new apartment, and planning for my class this semester), I'm back. Yay!

And we're starting off big this time, with Literary Cultures and the Material Book. This afternoon I read several essays in this book, edited by Simon Eliot, Andrew Nash, and Ian Willison. I was instructed to pay special attention to the final essay of the book, so I read the introductory materials, the essays that dealt with medieval and early modern book traditions, and the final essay, by David McKitterick.

In his essay "Some Material Factors in Literary Culture, 2500 BCE-1900 CE," Simon Eliot lays out very clearly three ways in which the materiality of the book affects and is affected by literary culture. The first is the physical form of the book which, in scrolls, in a codex, written on stone or wood or cloth, in a way chooses who gets to read it, what order they read it in, how they can manipulate the book (or not), and how long it sticks around. The second is the issue of copyright and ownership. Because I own a copy of a book, does that mean I own the content? What does that content ownership allow me to do? Cultures and periods differ on this, and the laws in-between countries can be especially confusing. The third is aspect of materiality hides in the wallet; how much does a book cost? How many people can afford to read it? For this, he takes the history of the Victorian novel as his exemplar. Three-volume novels, first edition, could cost as much as a weeks salary. Even depending on a circulating library, a lower-class citizen might not read a popular novel for years. However, when the novels began to come out serially, they were cheaper and more people could read them. Furthermore, second and third editions were even cheaper and more affordable for the lower class when they came out.

David Ganz, in his article "Carolingian Manuscript Culture," lays out several of the ways in which the Carolingian renaissance in medieval Francia (800-900) laid the foundation for later medieval book traditions. A new, simplified script was invented and adopted, the Caroline miniscule, which was easily read and easily learned. Collaboration and group production of texts occurred in the monasteries, a practice which allowed many more books (more than twice as many extant) to be made in this century as compared with the prior. Many monasteries began copying old Greek and Latin and patristic texts to keep them in circulation. Ganz says, "without the 280 ninth-century manuscripts of classical authors, we would not be able to read any Latin author except for Virgin, Terence, and Livy" (154). They began to copy books in vernacular languages, too. During this period, Walahfrid Strabo invented chapters, so that a reader could look for a specific place in a book. Some contemporary readers also added indices of notable words or topics to some of the classical manuscripts.

Brian Richardson contributed a very interesting article, "The Diffusion of Literature in Renaissance Italy: The Case of Pietro Bembo." He points out that the history of literature and the history of the book in Italy have long had nothing to do with each other. However, when looking at the history of the work of Pietro Bembo, an Italian poet, we see that Bembo had a hand in how his works were formatted, published, and distributed, working closely with the publisher.

So, good work, everybody!